Why Some Americans Just Can’t Handle the Truth About Slavery

A slave market in Atlanta, Georgia, 1864. The right to commodify  human beings is something Americans defended for generations. Deal with it.

A slave market in Atlanta, Georgia, 1864. The right to commodify human beings is something Americans defended for generations. Deal with it.

Americans like to think of themselves as exceptional people. As the world’s dominant economic and cultural power for much of the last century, they tend to puff their chests and proclaim that, “We’re the best! Look at our wealth! Look at our military power! There are McDonalds restaurants in China!” But for all of America’s power, the idea of American Exceptionalism wouldn’t hold as much appeal if it wasn’t backed by a clear belief in American moral superiority. After all, plenty of civilizations have dominated the world in the past, but a key component to American Exceptionalism is the idea that, unlike those past powers, the U.S. achieved peaceful world domination via the exportation of freedom, democracy, and capitalism – not necessarily in that order.

No matter that the idea of a benign American Exceptionalism is patently untrue; what matters is that people believe it to be true, and this belief influences their interpretations of the American past. This is especially true of conservatives, particularly some fuzzy little libertarians who are always insisting that if we only found that pot of free market gold at the end of Ayn Rand’s rainbow, the U.S. would be a perfect society. Because humans are such rational actors that we’d never do anything to pull the rug out from under the glorious market utopia we work so hard to construct. But I digress.

Among those many libertarian leprechaun chasers is Fox News turnip Andrew Napolitano. In a recent segment, the judge and legal analyst got all hot-and-bothered over the Civil War. You see, Napolitano thinks that Abraham Lincoln was America’s “first dictator” and that the Civil War was unnecessary. In a recent segment for Fox News squawkfest “The Independents,” the self-proclaimed Lincoln “contrarian” employed a series of bogus arguments, which historians debunked about 50 years ago, to claim that the Civil War wasn’t about slavery. The judge’s  statements are worth quoting in full so you can fully grasp the epic stupidity contained therein:

At the time that he [Lincoln] was the president of the United States, slavery was dying a natural death all over the Western world. It had just been expired by legislation in England. It had just died a natural death; that is, it was no longer economically feasible in Puerto Rico and Brazil, and the southern plantation owners were on the cusp of it dying here. Instead offer allowing it to die, or helping it to die, or even purchasing the slaves and then freeing them — which would have cost a lot less money than the Civil War cost — Lincoln set about on the most murderous war in American history.

Napolitano then dropped this mind-blowing piece of nonsense:

Look, it’s not even altogether clear if slavery was the reason for secession. Largely, the impetus for secession was tariffs!

Now, I could go on and on about the many falsehoods Napolitano packed into a few short statements, but much of what the judge said has already been brilliantly ripped apart in a segment by the Daily Show with Jon Stewart, which you absolutely must watch (Canadian readers can view the Daily Show segment here). Instead, allow me to focus on his contentions that the Civil War wasn’t fought over slavery, his idiotic claim that slavery would have died a “natural death,” and how a belief in American Exceptionalism demonstrates why folks like Napolitano can’t handle the truth human bondage.

Fox News legal analyst Andrew Napolitano has never actually been right about anything.

Fox News legal analyst Andrew Napolitano has never actually been right about anything.

First off, let me put it as plainly as I can: the Civil War was about slavery. One-hundred percent about slavery. You got that? Every other issue that arose during the build-up to the war was also directly related to slavery. Oh, but what about “State’s Rights?” you may ask. Let me be clear on this as well: humans don’t go to war over abstract concepts alone. These concepts need to be reflected in real-world, day-to-day issues. Thus, when southerners complained about “State’s Rights,” they referred to state’s rights to own slaves; rights they believed would be taken away by Abraham Lincoln and the Republican Party.

I’ve discussed the southern states’ Declarations of the Causes of Secession in previous posts (which you can read here and here), but allow me to once again provide some choice quotes from these documents that were written by the seceding states explicitly for the purpose of explaining to the world that they seceded over the right to own slaves and perpetuate slavery.

Mississippi stated that, “our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery– the greatest material interest of the world.” Texas boldly claimed in a very Texas-y way that, “the controlling majority of the Federal Government” was bent on “acquiring sufficient power…to use it as a means of destroying the institutions of Texas and her sister slaveholding States.” Georgia likewise noted that the South held “numerous and serious causes of complaint against our non-slave-holding confederate States with reference to the subject of African slavery.” And good ole’ South Carolina whined that the northern states “have united in the election of a man [Lincoln] to the high office of President of the United States, whose opinions and purposes are hostile to slavery.” Unlike modern-day Libertarians, Confederates in 1860-61 weren’t shy about admitting that the South seceded to protect the “peculiar institution.” Seriously. Go read the whole documents at the links. Slavery was a big thing.

So why, if the historical evidence is overwhelming that the Civil War was fought over slavery (just check any scholarly book on the Civil War written in the last half-century) do people like Napolitano claim that slavery wasn’t the cause of the conflict and that it would have died out were it not for the meddling of Dishonest Abe? The answer lies in a discomforting fact: slavery was a deeply American institution that flourished because of – not despite – American values.

This is where American Exceptionalism makes some people want to ignore the uglier aspects of U.S. history. If you believe, as Peter Beinart of the National Journal writes, “that America departs from the established way of doing things, that it’s an exception to the global rule,” then something as un-freedom-like as slavery can be pretty hard to accept. Of course, it seems that slavery is antithetical to American values. Doesn’t the Declaration of Independence say that “All men are created equal”? Isn’t slavery the very antithesis of freedom, which is the most cherished of all American ideals? The answer to both of those questions is “yes,” but with some very essential qualifications.

The Declaration of Independence is a statement of values and intent, not a binding legal document. The Constitution, by contrast, is the binding legal document in America, and for 78 years it stated that holding slaves was perfectly legal. The Constitution made slavery legal because the southern delegates to the Constitutional Convention argued that outlawing slavery was an attack on their property rights. You see, whenever you discuss freedom, you have to consider what “freedom” actually means. “Freedom” as a concept always has qualifications (freedom for whom? freedom to do what?), and when the U.S. embraced an ideal of freedom that was intrinsically bound up with the Lockean emphasis on private property rights, that property included human beings.

These individuals, known as "Tariffs," were so important to the South that it waged a bloody war to protect them.

These individuals, known as “Tariffs,” were so important to the South that it waged a bloody war to protect them.

For better and for worse, Americans have always linked capitalism to their interpretation of freedom. Simply put, capitalism is an American value. The right to free exchange of goods and services in an open, competitive marketplace has always been essential to American identity. Capitalism, however, is also distinctly amoral: its has no intrinsic values of its own, and its consistent need to commodify everything leads it to reduce human interactions to an endless series of monetary exchanges. Capitalism, like any other human-devised system, can be used for good or bad. Yet its tendency towards unequal wealth concentration, and the way it bequeaths political power to those it enriches, is precisely why slavery flourished in America, and why those who benefitted the most from slavery fought so hard to preserve it.

If you reason, as the did the slaveholders (and most Americans, for that matter), that freedom cannot exist without property rights, then you’ll understand why the Confederate States of America existed and why some people still have a hard time accepting that hundreds-of-thousands of Americans fought for the freedom to deny freedom to others. Among the many dangers of equating capitalism with freedom is that doing so risks valuing the right to market exchange over the right to human flourishing. Slavery was first-and-foremost an economic institution that existed because Americans believed that the right to buy, sell, and own property extended to the buying, selling, and owning of other humans. For pro-slavery Americans, this right trumped African-Americans’ right to flourish as free individuals. So valued was the trade in black bodies that modern Americans often find it difficult to believe that a value they still hold dear – the right to market exchange – once underpinned slavery.

Furthermore, slavery was about more than just economics. Never underestimate the very real – and very dark – human desire for domination over others. Slavery was an economic system, but it was also a social institution that gave one group of people total legal power over another group. As historian Walter Johnson observes in his book Soul by Soul: Life Inside the Antebellum Slave Market, people’s’ identities “as masters and mistresses, planters and paternalists, hosts and hostesses, slave breakers and sexual predators were all lived through the bodies of people who could be bought and sold in the market.”*

Thus, while you can put a dollar value on slavery – the total value of southern slaves in 1860 was 3 billion, nearly equal to the combined value of all northern industry and railroads – you can’t put a dollar value on the appeal of domination.* Yes, slaves were property, but they also provided unlimited concubines for planter men and served as literal punching bags onto which plantation mistresses unleashed their frustrations over the existence of “mulatto” children that looked suspiciously like their husbands. Finally, even for common, non-slaveholding southern whites, the existence of black slaves provided comfort in the knowledge that even the poorest cracker was socially and economically superior to the lowly negro.

While slavery as an economic institution gave southern whites political power, it also gave them the power to absolutely dominate millions of people in the most intimate of personal spaces. Those given such power over others are seldom in a rush to give it up. This is why, Andrew Napolitano’s claims notwithstanding, slavery wouldn’t have died “a natural death:” too much of southern – and American – identity was bound up in human bondage. Such facts don’t fit the black and white moral framework of American Exceptionalism. Nonetheless, the things that many people believe make America exceptional: its commitment to market capitalism, its Constitution, and its love of freedom were all used to justify and uphold black slavery. Any reasonably intelligent and compassionate mind can recognize this fact. Andrew Napolitano and his ilk cannot.  

* See Walter Johnson, Soul by Soul: Life Inside the Antebellum Slave Market (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999), 16.

* See James L. Huston, Calculating the Value of the Union: Slavery, Property Rights, and the Economic Origins of the Civil War (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2003), 28-29.

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20 Comments

  1. It is also interesting to consider that the emergence of an “absolute” property rights ideology was premised upon slavery. Libertarians and other conservatives like to pretend that property rights can be above discussion, easily identifiable and dependent upon nothing else.

    The Dred Scott decision should be notable for not only overturning Congressional acts in the name of slavery/property rights, but for invoking the Constitution and the Bill of Rights in the process.

    • You are absolutely, 100% right on that. Excellent observations. I have little patience for libertarians, for whom freedom constitutes the establishment of multiple, private fiefdoms all in the name of the supposedly inalienable right to property. In America, that property had to be taken from people by force (just ask the Cherokees), and force remains an essential element of the right-wing property fetish to this day. Thanks for reading and commenting.

  2. Another excellent blog! I know this may be off-topic, but I was wondering if you ever wrote anything about William Archibald Dunning? I would be most interested in learning from your point of view of the Dunning School. Thanks!

    • Thanks again for the compliments, Dale. I read a fair amount about the Dunning School during my grad program years. Initially my thoughts are that the Dunning interpretation of slavery and race-relations supports much of what I wrote about in the above post. In other words: Dunning and his minions wrote during a time when cultural racism was still a major mainstream force in American society, and these biases colored their interpretation of Reconstruction.

      Ultimately, the Dunningites, like so many Americans, couldn’t reconcile American ideals with slavery, so they took the easy route and tried to diminish the severity of anti-black violence during Reconstruction in order to argue that African-Americans weren’t ready for freedom and that slavery wasn’t so bad. That was all B.S., of course, but the Dunningites maintained a steady influence on historical writing for quite a while because a racist American society was susceptible to it since it fed into preconceived biases. Scholars, especially Eric Foner, have long-since destroyed the Dunning School’s arguments. At some point I may write a full post on Dunning, but I hope that answers your question for now. Thanks again for reading!

  3. Thanks so much Jarret! I see so many parallels from our history that exists in our world today. Especially these arguments from the Dunning School mirrored in today’s CPAC convention. I’ve been really pulling out my popcorn for that one! I just love and think History is so amazing! We can learn so much from it. In understanding the specter of racism that has continued to dog American society since it’s beginning, it can be a truly humbling experience. We are not as evolved as we think and are still in the process of moving out of the ‘dark ages’ of our History. Thanks so much for all your efforts in shining the light on the dark places. I will continue to read your writings and look forward to each new post with keen interest!

    • Oh man, don’t get me started on CPAC, America’s greatest annual clown convention! Thanks again for the compliments. You’re right, the only way to get rid of bad ideas like racism, prejudice, conservatism, etc., is to show where they come from and try and learn from past mistakes. Thanks for continuing to read, and you should check out the post I just wrote on your friend and mine, Dareell Issa.

  4. The problem with the “slavery was a result of capitalism” argument is that anti-capitalist regimes have ALSO used forced labor with high mortality rates (Russia, China). And many Leftists in the west ignored or defended these abuses, because they felt that these regimes were advancing equality and that was worth the sacrifice of freedom. So if capitalism and egalitarianism can both be used to justify slavery, where does that leave us? Nowhere, except that humans are bastards- we enjoy power over other people and will use any ideology to justify that.

    • Those are quite good points. I wasn’t so much saying that slavery was the result of capitalism, since slavery, of course, existed long before the existence of modern capitalism. But American slavery proved particularly ripe for U.S.-style capitalist ventures, and slavery’s American defenders always invoked pro-capitalist, property rights arguments to defend the institution’s perpetuation. I’m not anti-capitalist, per-say, but I am a proud leftist in that I’m not afraid to point out and critique the misery and death that capitalism has wrought – in addition to the benefits it has also bestowed (standard of living improvements, etc.). Thanks for the insightful comment.

      • “I wasn’t so much saying that slavery was the result of capitalism, since slavery, of course, existed long before the existence of modern capitalism.”

        Well, it is obvious that slavery wasn’t built on capitalism. As you point out, slavery is ancient.

        However, I would make a couple of points. Racialized slavery was something entirely new, quite different from what existed in the ancient world. Capitalism was built on this racialized slavery, where enslaved blacks in capitalism took on the role that serfs played in feudalism.

        As an interesting side note, both ‘capitalism’ and ‘chattel’ have the same etymological origins as ‘cattle’.

        https://benjamindavidsteele.wordpress.com/2014/10/26/ask-a-cow-what-it-is-to-be-free/

  5. First, I want to say that I agree with most of what you say about slavery on this blog site. However, I think it is problematic to tie slavery in America too closely to capitalism in America. Some of the most prominent abolitionists, like William Lloyd Garrison, were supporters of capitalism. Meanwhile, George Fitzhugh, a social theorist from Virginia and a nationally prominent proslavery thinker, was basically a right-wing Communist who defended the enslavement of blacks and endorsed enslaving white workers as an alternative to what he saw as the oppressive capitalist system. It is a mistake to marginalize the Socialists like Wendell Phillips and Bayard Rustin who have contributed to equal rights, but it is also a mistake to overestimate the link between capitalism and the oppression of African Americans.

    • Your point is well-taken. I would never go so far as to blame capitalism for slavery. After all, slavery existed for millenia before modern capitalism even came into existence. What I was trying to convey in this post is the danger of too closely associating capitalism with freedom, as if this system, created by humans, is somehow exempt from the worst of human prejudices and practices. While plenty of people wrongly think that slavery would have died out in the long run, the most recent scholarship shows just how compatible capitalism was with slavery, and how capitalism’s commodifying tendencies proved a potent force when applied to selling human beings. Thanks again for reading, and I appreciate your feedback!

      • Great essay. I think the only element you are missing here is racism. American Exceptionalism is based in part on “all men are created equal,” and looking slavery and especially racism in the face is uncomfortable to say the least. Economics interest, or the desire to “dominate others,” by themselves aren’t enough to explain American slavery. As I argued at True Blue Federalist (how I wish I had known of your blog before starting my own!), the great irrational fear of blacks and losing the social system that guarantied white supremacy is the thing that pushed them over the top.

        • Very good points all around, and thanks for the compliments. I checked out your blog and its good stuff. Although you have some serious gusto to want to take on the neo-Confederate whack-a-loons full-time. Generally, I don’t get a huge amount of commenting traffic here, and I don’t always discuss the Civil War, but I write one post on the Confederate flag and wow: the nutcases really slithered out of the internet’s dusty crawlspaces.

      • Yeah…I could be an idiot. But it was an experiment, in a way, arguing for 80 comments with someone who’s been banned by most of the other CW blogs.

        I hope to expand the blog beyond the CW stuff and look at the place of Indian nations in the weird federal system we have; especially in regard to natural resources, both protecting them and exploiting them. I’m looking forward to going back thru your stuff to see what you have in that vein.

        • So, there are people who spend all of their time arguing and getting banned from Civil War blogs? Isn’t that kind of, I don’t know, nuts? Also, the issue of native-peoples and the Federal government is a tragic and brutal tale that is well-worth delving into. To me, it’s the darkest chapter in U.S. history, next to slavery. Thanks for reading! I’ve added your blog to my blogroll.

  6. I wont wait for you to admit that J E Ws controlled the slave trade, so much so that IF slave auctions fell on a Jewish holiday in North and South America, they were cancelled.

    Just google: Jewish Slave trade.
    A mind is a terrible thing to waste, my brother.

    • The mind is indeed a terrible thing to waste, especially on vile, anti-semetic bigotry. Do yourself a favor and read this book that debunks the malarchy you just posted.

      • I had the misfortune of commenting on Bharford’s blog.

        He does take his anti-semitic bigotry quite seriously, but I came to realize the guy simply isn’t quite right in the head. He obviously is some kind of extreme right-wing paranoid conspiracy theorist with a one track mind. Anyone who disagrees with him is a ‘crypto-jew’.

        Here is his comment where he peered deep in my soul to discover my dark secret identity:

        “Lastly, Steele is a crypto Jewish name, and coupled with your Old Testament first names, well some might say you’re an Anti Christ j ew, anti white, and apologist for the failure of die versity and black crime. Your circular and nonsensical arguments give you away every single time as does your over inflated self importance and feminine insecurity. Shalom”

        He then explained how he was so certain of my true nature:

        “I’ve done the Jewish geneology search on your name. It is overwhelmingly crypto Jewish as are your demented views and logic. I’ve censored nothing but do not wish my readers and others scandalized by your Talmudic and degenerate posts. Shalom”

        This ‘crypto-jew’ detection is a skill that he has highly developed:

        “I’m j ew wise and can smell bagels a mile away. Nice try. Shalom”

        Even so, Jews and ‘crypto-jews’ shouldn’t feel like they are being targeted alone. He, of course, hates black people and I’m sure anyone who is perceived as a minority. If you are an ‘other’ in his mind, then you are the equivalent of a demonic being coming to take his soul away.

        At first, I wasn’t sure whether or not to take him seriously, but apparently he is the real deal. My initial response was to mock him. Now I just feel sorry for him. He obviously needs serious mental help.

  7. The recent book “The Other Half Has Never Been Told” clearly and emphatically provides evidence that the idea that slavery was dying on the vine is false. Slaves were being literally marched from the coast to the “deep south” to work on new plantations and to make sure they could never escape to freedom. It’s easier to get to the free states from Virginia than from Alabama. After he was elected VP of the confederate states Alexander Stephens gave a speech admitting that the war was fought to uphold the fundamental principle that whites were superior to blacks. Until I reread some of Gunnar Myrdahl I had forgotten about the sexual element of American racism.
    I agree it is impossible to overstate the human need to dominate their “inferiors.’ We are exceptional but not in a morally acceptable way. Follow the line from Trail of Tears and slavery to the bloody race riots (whites killing blacks) of the early 20th century to WWII internment of American citizens, to the civil rights struggle, to today’s “voter” supression efforts and you can see American exceptionalism at work. It ain’t pretty but it is real.

    • That is a decent book, but it isn’t a favorite of mine. The problem is that there aren’t many books about the relationship of slavery and capitalism, as many scholars have taken the approach that they were opposing or at least differing systems. It would be nice to see more books that explore this topic.

      BTW there is no ‘Other’ in the title. It’s just “The Half Has Never Been Told.”

      Below is a section from the book to give a small taste of it. The author’s basic point being that slavery was never separate from the larger international system of capitalist production and trade. In fact, the development of capitalism was dependent on slavery and the racialized inequalities of power and wealth were built into the system.

      “From markets built on the labor and the bodies of enslaved people, and from the infrastructure laid down to ship the product in and out, came economic growth. But from this economic growth came not only wealth, but also political power in the councils of the nation. Poor white men insisted that they, too, should enjoy the psychic rewards of right-handed power on slavery’s frontier, and from that came temporary defeat for arrogant planters. Yet clever political entrepreneurs, most notably Andrew Jackson, turned assertively populist energies into the channels of political power, too. They created a new interregional political alliance that yielded decades more of compromise and that enabled the South to maintain its disproportionate power within the federal government. Still, both South and North depended on slavery’s expansion. The products generated from the possibilities of co-exploitation explain much of the nation’s astonishing rise to power in the nineteenth century. Through the booms and the crashes emerged a financial system that continuously catalyzed the development of US capitalism. By the 1840s, the United States had grown into both an empire and a world economic power— the second greatest industrial economy, in fact, in the world— all built on the back of cotton.

      “Dependence on cotton stretched far beyond North American shores. A world greedy for a slice of the whipping-machine’s super-profits had financed the occupation of the continent, and the forced migration of enslaved African Americans to the southwestern cotton fields helped to make the modern world economy possible. The steadily increasing productivity of hands on the cotton frontier kept cheap raw materials flowing to the world’s newest and most important industry, the cotton textile factories of Britain, Western Europe, and the North. Theft of days, years, labor, of the left hand’s creative secrets helped provide the escape velocity for the fledgling modern world to do what no other historical society had done before and pull away from the gravitational field of the Malthusian cul-de-sac. Slavery’s expansion was the driving force in US history between the framing of the Constitution and the beginning of the Civil War. It made the nation large and unified, and it made the South’s whites disproportionately powerful in that nation. Enslavers had turned right hand against left to achieve not only productivity but also power that few other dominant classes in human history had possessed.”

      Baptist, Edward E. (2014-09-09). The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism (Kindle Locations 8641-8659). Basic Books. Kindle Edition.

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